Now some good news in Beirut: Lebanon's ruins, ancient and modern, are now accessible to the ordinary sightseer, as Timothy Pullan reports

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The Independent Travel
A curious nostalgia: high in the hills above Beirut, the smooth black curves of an original Thirties London taxi shine resplendent in the evening sun, only slightly obscured by a thin covering of yellowish dust. Michel chatters animatedly in Arabic and English, showing the work he has carried out on the vehicle, unscathed by the 15 years of war since it ferried well-heeled tourists in the heyday of Lebanon.

Behind him, beyond a low wall, a deep valley stretches away into the night, becoming a narrow ravine before dwindling out of sight. To the left tower the snow-covered slopes of Mount Sannine. It is Easter, and Lebanon is bathed in the warm weather brought by the sirocco.

When my parents decided to emigrate here, they insisted that I visit, to set my mind at rest. Anticipation was coloured by media images of Lebanon's terrible war, such as Terry Waite, pallid and emaciated, emerging from years of suffering as a political pawn.

The country has enjoyed three years of peace, and with an old Nissan van (borrowed, but to hire about USdollars 20-dollars 30 a day), an army of willing drivers (dollars 10-dollars 15 a day), and a group of like-minded travellers, Lebanon was my oyster. We were not intrepid journalists, we were sightseers, and with that in mind we set off for Baalbek, ancient city of the gods.

The journey was an uncomfortable two-hour drive through the Bekaa plain, along pot-holed roads, heading north-west of Beirut, passing through the town of Zahle with its open-air restaurants. The driver was continually forced to swerve to avoid the worst of the unrepaired craters. Approaching Syrian and Lebanese army checkpoints was disconcerting at first, but the lazy wave of unconcerned soldiers behind piles of painted sandbags soon dispelled unease.

In the small square opposite the ruins of Baalbek, we were swamped by eager vendors selling everything from ancient stoneware to fluorescent sunglasses. One man revealed a handful of Roman silver coins - a snip at the asking price, dollars 15 for the lot. Foreign tourists are a rare commodity in Lebanon, and here, as elsewhere, sites of antiquity are money to the living.

The guidebook referred to 'the sort of crowds which accumulate at all the famous places in the world', but the green turnstile building stood deserted, except for the man behind the cashier's window. He wanted almost 3,000 Lebanese lire. (The book price is 3.5 lire, but the most recent guide available was written in 1974.)

Inside the walls lay evidence of a great civilisation: a huge, sun-baked complex of temples, courtyards and outhouses, many still intact after more than 1,800 years. Yet, despite the significance of such a piece of antiquity, we were free to roam, to clamber and to explore to our hearts' desire. 'No Entry' and 'Keep Off' signs were absent - as were hordes of sightseers.

The centrepiece is the Temple of Jupiter, of which little remains intact but six huge pillars, stark against the snow-striped mountains. The pillars are raised up on a platform of stone blocks measuring up to 10 metres by 4.5 metres, so elevating the temple that it dominates the surrounding plain - a symbol of the once all-powerful empire of Rome.

Just below the pillars, across a courtyard strewn with fragments of elaborate masonry, of marble columns and bright mosaics, stands the Temple of Bacchus which, altar included, is almost complete. It may be smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, but that of Bacchus, built in AD150, is still larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

I sat inside its echoing walls, picturing great processions, as a group of students took it in turns to sit on the altar, adopting the demeanour of kings; but no one else shared the temple's grandiosity. Begun by Julius Caesar, completed by Augustus and ruined by Byzantine emperors, Arab warriors and earthquakes, Baalbek was more recently rumoured to have been a temporary prison for Western hostages.

In the evening, the cool green hills to the east of Beirut provided a natural refuge from the parched Bekaa plain. In the quiet village of Broumana, at the Coq Rouge, we were treated to sumptuous fare: mezze of aubergine, humus, tabouleh, then plates of crispy pastries, hot spiced meatballs, grilled lamb and stuffed vine leaves, accompanied by light Lebanese wine. A stroll away, along still streets, there was nightlife in the Cheers bar, where muted discussions in small wooden alcoves gave way to raucous singing and dancing, the clientele busily serving themselves, while Sam, the laissez-faire landlord, toasted our health. Credit flowed with the drink, no one keeping count, and when the time came to leave, settling the bill was a happy affair of calling it dollars 20.

Our tour took us south along the arterial road from Antelias, where we stayed in a secluded convent overlooking Beirut harbour. On either side of the road lay the crumbling concrete remains of countless tenements destroyed by shells when the Israelis invaded in 1983. The dispossessed occupied the verges, offering enormous oranges and grapefruit, sold by the sackful at dollars 5.

We reached the port of Sidon, or Saida, one of the old Phoenician city states famous for its purple dye. There is nothing like keeping good company; Homer wrote about the town's craftsmen, St Paul passed through on his way to Damascus. The town I saw was blistered with what was now a familiar texture of shrapnel marks. We stopped in front of the stone walkway leading to the ruins of the 'sea castle' left behind in 1291 by a more recent group of conquerors, the Crusaders. It lies, as the name suggests, in the waters of the bay, whitest yellow against cerulean blue. But beautiful as it is, with its views of the Mediterranean, the castle now acts as a fishing platform and pissoir.

Back across the walkway, I plunged into Sidon's labyrinthine covered market, the ancient souk where, amid all the buying and selling, my shorts drew a lot of attention. A shopkeeper's son bellowed in a broad Australian accent, 'I could spot you a mile off]' He had lived in Sydney and was proud of it.

The dreamy fishing town of Tyre, with its enormous Roman excavations, took us farther south. Men sat in the shade of the small harbour, mending and folding nets for the day's fishing, an occupation which thrived here long before the Romans. In this part of Lebanon the prayer call from the muezzin follows one everywhere. From the intact ranked seating of the hippodrome, Shia girls with their faces peeping from shawls giggled at us, while their male companions fixed us with impenetrable stares. We were on display.

Leaving the convent in early morning, after breakfast of pitta bread, leben (a creamy yoghurt), olives and ahewi (small cups of Arabic coffee), to the accompanying chants of otherwise mute devotees on an Easter retreat, our guide, Kameel, led us east on an unforgettable journey. We travelled along meandering roads through the dynamic landscape of the Chouf mountains, driving by dusty villages, past old men in baggy black trousers, the traditional dress of the Druze.

High above the terraced slopes of the Chouf, we discovered the Palace of Beit Edine, or House of Faith, its serenity undisturbed by time. Beyond the next valley lay the smog of Beirut and, after some persuasion, our driver, a 24-year-old student at the American University there, agreed to descend into Ras Beirut, a destination for the discerning traveller in the Sixties. On the waterfront stands the famous Hotel St George, where film stars used to sit by the pool; but our van rumbled past what is now a blackened shell. The French facades that once adorned the glittering streets lie in the road or hang tentatively from shattered girders.

The centre, Martyrs' Square, used to resemble Piccadilly Circus, but only the statue of the Martyrs now remains. Vendors sell coffee at the foot of the statue's steps, where we sat on plastic chairs among the rubble. While other traders looked on enviously, we were sold postcards of the square by a retired salesman. Refusal was impossible. 'You like these,' he insisted. The Lebanon of the postcards was as it used to be; but the ruins of Lebanon do not need to have life breathed into them.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Trailfinders (071-938 3366) offers London-Athens-Beirut with Olympic Airways at pounds 209 return or London-Amsterdam-Beirut with KLM at pounds 451 return; Middle Eastern Airways (071- 493 5681) flies direct Heathrow-Beirut

Further information: Jasmin Tours (06285 31121) offers six-night bed-and-breakfast packages to Beirut from pounds 599 and six- night tours of the Lebanon (including Baalbek, Byblos and Tyre) from pounds 948.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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